La Muerte Comes For A Poverty Program

Ever since the main streets were paved, there have been fewer stray dogs in Chalco, goes the grim joke among residents of this dust-choked slum outside Mexico City. On the asphalt streets named for dead presidents and revolutionary heroes, even rickety delivery trucks can prove fatal to unwary strays. But on most of Chalco's dirt roads, with names like East 1A or North 23, the dogs have no fear from vehicles crawling over the deep ruts in the roadway.

For six years, the 1 million inhabitants of this vast, low-rise slum have heard promises of paved roads, drainage pipes, and drinking water. In part, the government kept its word. Chalco was the birthplace of a controversial antipoverty program named Solidarity that proved to be the base of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's popular support. Salinas' successor, Ernesto Zedillo, quietly gave Solidarity the official coup de grce on June 14.

CHEAP MATERIALS. So ended a key source of political patronage that, along with bringing electricity to Chalco and schoolhouses to Chiapas, bought the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) millions of votes. Zedillo, a technocrat lacking his predecessor's common touch, wants to turn over federal money to state and local officials.

For some in Chalco, Solidarity was never convincing anyway. "It was all just a big racket," says Lucia Gisela Vzquez Mora, who earns $25 a week from the small produce stand she runs from her two-bedroom house. "They came by and gave us buckets that said Solidarity." Vzquez, who voted for the center right opposition in August's presidential election, complains that Solidarity used cheap materials to lay water lines and hook up electricity. "When it rains, the water doesn't work and the lights go out," says the 45-year-old widow. "The sewage system has never worked."

At its start, Solidarity won international praise for encouraging local groups to take the initiative. Where they could, residents supplied the labor, painting schoolhouses or digging up roads to lay water lines. Salinas delighted in the program, whose outlines he first proposed in his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University two decades ago. Each weekend, he toured the country to hear petitions and hand out land titles to squatters in Solidarity's name.

In Chalco, Luz Mara Aguilar got title to her two-room, cinder-block house. Handing me a cold Coke served with a folded paper napkin, Aguilar recalls Salinas without rancor. "The old bald guy was a good President. He came through for me." Across the street is a brick schoolhouse where there was a row of shacks, and her new home has running water--although she was asked to pay for it a year before it reached here. The divorced mother of three lives on the $150 a month she gets from her ex-husband's pension and cobbles together an additional $50 by selling clothes.

POWER BASE. At its height last year, Solidarity's $3 billion budget covered more than 30 programs--from scholarships to encourage poor children to complete primary school to credit for Mayan coffee growers and seed money for microbusinesses. Solidarity's effort to involve residents won praise from some of its fiercest critics. "It created something intangible, a sense of unity and purpose," concedes political analyst Denise Dresser. Boosters say Solidarity's targeted projects were more effective than previous broad subsidies. "It may be politically driven, but it's also responsive government," says one official.

Still, the program's political taint was unmistakable. Solidarity sometimes ignored and even battled with community groups. With Solidarity, says Dresser, Salinas built a personal power base that bypassed the PRI machines, which for years had delivered votes from Mexico's 50 million poor. Zedillo, in his bid to devolve power from the presidency, will have neither Solidarity nor the old PRI structures it replaced to back his proposed reforms.

The government has already turned over part of Solidarity's $1.5 billion 1995 budget--halved in dollar terms by December's peso devaluation--to state and local authorities. By 1998, local officials will have full control, with only guidelines from Mexico City. The new National Alliance for Well-being, says Social Development Secretary Carlos Rojas, will target spending to Mexico's poorest, such as Indians and peasants who scratch a living from the desert.

Are local governments up to the job? In Mexico's poorest states, such as Chiapas, mayors run virtual fiefdoms. "The same discretional manipulation that the President had before is now multiplied by 2,400 municipal presidents," argues Rosario Robles, a congresswoman from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. Robles wants a citizens' commission to audit social spending.

Rojas agrees better oversight is needed. First, local laws must be rewritten to check the flow of money to corrupt pockets. And any governor tempted toward showy boondoggles will have to answer to the soft-spoken Rojas. "Since they're federal funds, we will respectfully suggest to the governor that they go to the most marginalized," he says. His leverage: redirecting funds away from those who don't toe the line.

For now, Chalco's residents are at a loss. The development officials who used to swarm over Chalco are gone. "We don't know who to fight with to finish things," says Gloria Nava at a meeting of women who run a community bank. "Now we have to pressure the municipal president." Forget that, says her friend Hildegardt Escobedo: "He has always been such a despot." That may leave Chalco's dusty streets safe for dogs for years to come.

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